The American system is categorized as a republic, as opposed to a democracy. It does, however, have democratic features, which make the concept of democracy and its development important to understand.
Aristotle’s understanding of the meaning of democracy dominated its connotation almost unchanged from his time until the early 1800s. He saw governments as having their own life cycle: though they may start begin in the right vein, he argued, they degenerate over time. In Aristotle’s mind, governments working for the good came in three forms. Government by a single sovereign is a monarchy. Government by the fittest is aristocracy. Government by the people is polity. Degeneration occurs inevitably in each, leading to forms guided more by corruption and oppression of the people. Monarchy leads to the evil brand of tyranny. Aristocracy turns to oligarchy. Polity descends into democracy.
Democracy in Aristotle’s sense is best defined by John Adams’s phrase “tyranny of the majority.” Aristotle’s vision of “democracy” was undoubtedly shaped by Athens’s authoritarian system—which, for one, ordered the execution of Socrates for what we might today call “thought crimes.”
By the 1700s, the British system understood through historical experience that each of Aristotle’s three modes of government alone would lead to bad results. They theorized that a balanced system with all three would demonstrate the best resilience and also protect liberties. In the case of Britain, they saw that the monarchy, aristocracy represented in the House of Lords, and polity represented in the House of Commons and in the people at large could create political balance and prevent degeneration.
The Founding Fathers understood that each of these elements alone, especially a simple majority rule system, would lead to corruption and infringements on the rights of the people. For that reason, they created a government system that depended on combining and balancing democratic and other elements.
By the 1830s, the Jacksonian movement transformed both a word and society. Andrew Jackson won in large part due to new laws that abandoned the property requirement in voting in the US. Millions of white men won the right to vote for the first time and were able to participate fully in the political process.
By the time Alexis de Tocqueville started his tour of the United States, democracy meant something more than a political system. The word referred to the embrace of a form of egalitarianism in which most support the aspirations of the poor toward material wealth and social position through their own efforts. In America, the poorest could rise to powerful social heights (that is, if they were white). Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, for example, grew up in grinding poverty. He first built a successful business, then won high office in the US Senate, and he eventually served as president. The social conditions that allowed, or at least did not prevent, poor white men to aspire and succeed was in large part what de Tocqueville saw in the idea of democracy.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Politics” places the state as one of the obstacles to democracy. He writes,
Hence, the less government we have, the better,—the fewer laws, and the less confided power.
Emerson saw the private character of Americans, more so than government or political parties, as the real source of democracy. He built on de Tocqueville by describing how each individual’s good character will add up. The grains of good character result in a heap that drives the nation forward in beneficial ways.
Emerson also held a belief in the “Whiggish” view of history. Divorced from its political party connotations in the US and Britain, this refers to a belief that history inevitably advances toward the better. He saw liberty and freedom as inevitable victors in America, including for those living in slavery.